Immigrant Dropouts Are Covid’s Invisible Casualties

You can lose track of a lot of kids in a pandemic. Last fall, I ran into a local teacher and asked him how the school year was going. He grimaced. In addition to all the difficulties of kids learning remotely, there was a more acute problem: kids who were not learning remotely. One of his students, for example, had simply stopped showing up on Zoom. He subsequently saw her working at her family’s restaurant.

Every school district seems to have such stories. The barely supervised kid who stays up so late playing video games that, by the time he finally wakes the next day, half the school day is gone.  The kid who awaits his mother’s tardy return from the night shift so he can use her cell phone to access classes. And the kids who simply disappear. The California Department of Education reported that enrollment in K-12 public schools in the state fell almost 3%, by 160,000 students, in the school year that began last September.

Three percent is a large number, one that points to lifetimes of cascading troubles gaining access to higher education, decent jobs and good incomes. But it represents a relatively small loss compared with what’s been going on in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble city near the middle of the state. After the Hazleton Area School District closed schools in March 2020, and education moved online, it proceeded to lose track of one-third of its nearly 12,000 students.

Hazleton is the kind of working-class town where immigrants go to get a leg up. In the 19th century, Irish, Italians and others came to work in area coal mines. When the coal industry declined, so did the population. A new industry, warehouses, pulled the city out of its slump; Hazleton began to grow again. Near the junction of Interstates 80 and 81 is a virtual city within the city, featuring one massive warehouse after another — Amazon, American Eagle and a host of logistics companies — staffed by immigrant workers, many from the Dominican Republic.

Yet even as the exigencies of the pandemic kept many of Hazleton’s warehouses humming, the town’s schools faltered. For many immigrants, the loss of in-person schooling for their children, combined with minimal access to technology and the immigrants’ own threadbare social safety nets, left them unable to find footing in the new terrain. Problems that hindered wealthier, more stable communities overwhelmed immigrant Hazleton.

Nationally, almost one in four public school students in the U.S. is from a household with at least one immigrant parent. Some come from highly educated households where parents have professional degrees. Others belong to the kind of working-class households that predominate in Hazleton, where educational attainment is low and English is often a distant second language. According to a 2019 Urban Institute report, one in five children of immigrants in the U.S. lived in households in which no parent had completed high school. (For native-born children, the comparable figure is 5 percent.) Even minor setbacks can reverberate in such families, where the margin between success and failure is often narrow and unforgiving.

Some of Hazleton’s students disappeared quickly. They lacked computers. They lacked WiFi. They lacked cars that could transport them to one of the few WiFi hotspots available. And they lacked the kind of parents who speak English, have social support systems and understand how to navigate an English-speaking school bureaucracy — or even a WiFi service provider — in the midst of crisis. Not having updated phone numbers, email addresses, or home addresses for those 4,000 students made it impossible to locate them,” said Superintendent of Schools Brian Uplinger in an email. 

“Some of the parents were saying that they were struggling because they needed to go to work,” said Keren Berrios Gomez, a teacher who moved to Hazleton from Puerto Rico and who now works at the Hazleton Integration Project, a local nonprofit serving a largely Hispanic population of children. “So the kids were staying with grandma. So grandma doesn’t know technology, so they couldn’t connect. Or grandma didn’t have internet. And they need internet for the computers to work.”

The schools had never been particularly easy for new immigrants. Registration is done exclusively online, requiring not only a computer and internet access, but also the capacity to upload documents. Changes of address must likewise be completed online. In addition to technology hurdles, immigrant parents are sometimes intimidated by school administrators, few of whom speak Spanish. “When you don’t know the language, you’re afraid,” said Rosanna Gabriel, executive director of the Hazleton Integration Project.

It took only two decades for the Hispanic population of the schools to soar as immigrant parents came to Hazleton for work. “I graduated with probably a handful of Latino kids,” said Jamie Longazel, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who grew up in Hazleton and graduated from high school there in 2001. By 2005, the demographic transition was sufficiently acute that the mayor at the time, Lou Barletta, gained national fame as an anti-immigrant crusader. He shepherded into law a series of provisions, later ruled unconstitutional, to punish local employers who hired undocumented immigrants and local landlords who rented to them.

Barletta’s crusade was futile; the warehouses kept coming, and so did the immigrants. But the conflict drove a deep wedge between old residents and new. While Hazleton’s population has since grown increasingly Hispanic, its power structure, including local government and the school board, has not. Districtwide, almost 20% of students are learning English as a second language, even as the number of Hispanic administrators and teachers remains small.

“There are no Latino school board members, no Latino administrators,” emailed Robert Childs, a retired pediatrician who served on the school board for 16 years. (He left the board in 2015 after losing election.) There are few Hispanic teachers and no Hispanics on the district’s 7-member police force. In an email, Superintendent Uplinger wrote that the district has had difficulty attracting Hispanic applicants for jobs.

Managing the pandemic was always going to be more difficult in a place like Hazleton. Much of the work force could not work from home. Some 200 workers at its Cargill meatpacking plant contracted Covid-19. (An employee filed a complaint alleging that Black and Hispanic workers there were exposed to higher risk.) Hazleton also has high apartment turnover rates, compounding the difficulty of keeping tabs on transient students.

Moreover, the Hazleton district seems to have been shorted Covid relief funds relative to more rural, whiter districts — a relative shortfall that makes the district’s decision to spend $170,000 on a 5-year lease for a high-tech air disinfecting machine seem more dubious.

I asked Superintendent Uplinger about the paucity of laptops, which many families did not receive until 2021 (with some receiving only one per household despite numerous students at home). Some laptops were still being distributed in March 2021. Uplinger emailed: 

The distribution of laptops was slow and was held up by the high demand across the world.  We ordered 3,200 laptops in March of 2020. We did not receive those computers until December of 2020. Any opportunity we had to order computers, we took advantage of it. Over the course of this year, we were able to secure over 7,500 additional computers/laptops to help support our students. Again, the support was delayed because of the pandemic. Our efforts to try and secure broadband access was unsuccessful for families at their homes. We tried working with a local company but were unsuccessful in coming to a resolution. We did install Wi-Fi units on our light poles in the parking lots of several schools within the HASD. Those could be accessed by families from their vehicles.

Uplinger said that some of the students who were lost in spring returned to school in the fall; he didn’t specify how many. Hazleton schools reopened in April, but were soon shut again due to Covid outbreaks. As elsewhere, it may be a while before the district is back to normal.

A McKinsey & Co. analysis published in December indicated that, nationally, students started the 2020-2021 school year about three months behind in mathematics, with a significant racial disparity in the amount of ground lost due to the pandemic. “Students of color were about three to five months behind in learning; white students were about one to three months behind. The picture for reading is more positive, with students starting school just a month and a half behind historical averages,” McKinsey reported.

Those were the results for students who remained tethered to schools. It’s hard to know what a lost year — and counting — of education will do to students who were cut loose altogether. Some Hazleton students returned to the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Some moved to other U.S. states. Perhaps they resumed their educations in those places. For those who didn’t, in Hazleton or elsewhere, the consequences will likely be severe. A Migration Policy Institute report stated, “The shift to remote learning in March 2020 resulted in an enormously uneven response by states and districts, and the ongoing public-health crisis is likely to result in the widening of already significant opportunity and achievement gaps.” 

The social impacts will surely reverberate, as well. Schools serve as an engine of integration for immigrant youth, easing their path into the mainstream of America’s economy and society. How fully the lost students of Hazleton can be brought back into the social or academic flow is an open question. First, someone will have to find them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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